OKEECHOBEE — When her husband of 65 years passed away in July, one of Marlene Burns’s granddaughters suggested a unique way to honor his memory. Richard Burns passed away unexpectedly a few weeks ago. The couple went to church together Sunday morning, July 12, and he was fine, Mrs. Burns said.
“He sang all the songs like he always did. He tapped his cane in time to the music. It was a great morning. They went home for lunch, but before Mrs. Burns had time to even prepare it, she said her husband sat down in his Lazy Boy, closed his eyes and was gone.
“After we had the funeral, somebody wanted a bathrobe and somebody wanted a shirt, and one of my granddaughters said, ‘Grandma, I heard of a lady who took a shirt and turned it into a teddy bear after her husband died.’ I thought, you know, I could do that,” said Mrs. Burns. “So, I did.”
She had to stop giving away the shirts, and now she has 13 teddy bears to give to children and grandchildren. At first, she was going to give the shirts to just the girls, because the boys had taken shirts or robes to wear, but then she decided she wanted to give them bears, too. She does not have enough bears for every child and grandchild, because Mr. and Mrs. Burns raised three biological children and 100 foster children over a period of about 30 years, and there were not enough shirts to make a bear for every one who wanted one.
Each bear is wearing a necktie made from one of Mr. Burns’ ties, and each tie is held on with a pin belonging to Mr. Burns. The pins are things like the American flag or his blood donor pin or from different cruises he took.
“We had a fantastic life together,” said Mrs. Burns. They began taking in foster children around 1965 after they received a call from the local high school in Indiana where they were living at the time. They took in as many as eight children at a time and already had three daughters of their own. “They had my number,” she laughed. “We never intended to take any.” She had her own three daughters and was taking care of her husband’s boss’s daughter as well, so that meant four young girls in the house. One day, she got a call from the principal of the school across the street, and they told her they had a high school senior, who wanted to graduate there, but her parents were divorcing, and her mother was leaving town. The girl did not want to go. The school wanted to know if they would take her in until graduation. Mrs. Burns thought her husband would say no, but he agreed. She thought he would say no because she had asked him before about babysitting, and he had told her he thought she was too busy with the four little girls. A caseworker showed up at the door and checked out the house. They had five bedrooms. Of course, at the time, they were not all being used as bedrooms, but they were available.
“Once they got their foot in the door, they continued on and on and on for 30 years,” she laughed. “It’s been quite a life. We took other people’s children to 48 states. We didn’t make it to Hawaii or Alaska, but to all the other states with them. We traveled on spring break and Christmas and summer, of course. We tried to show them America. They came from living on water and popcorn; we wanted to show them other ways to live.”
Mrs. Burns is a member of the Okeechobee Presbyterian Church and sings in the community choir and said she has a great support system to help her through her loss.
In 2016, Marlene became an author and wrote a book about raising all the children. It is aptly titled, Kids, Kids, Kids: My Life Raising 100 Foster Children Over 30 Years and can be purchased on Amazon for $10.99 or for Kindle for $4.49. If you want to know more about the Burns family’s adventures raising 103 children, she said you will have to read the book.
Her children, grandchildren, great grandchildren, foster children, their children and grandchildren will have to duke it out for the teddy bears. There are only so many and no more shirts to make more.